The Analog Shutdown, for Better or for Worse Print
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Article Index
The Analog Shutdown, for Better or for Worse
- - The Way Things Look Today
- - How Things Look Post-Transition
- - Analog Today vs. Post-Transition
- - Conclusions

The Way Things Look Today

We actually have a very unique OTA situation right now because many broadcasters are operating both an analog and a digital transmitter simultaneously.  This means a lot of people have almost double the number of channels reaching them now compared to just a few years ago.  Anyone with equipment capable of receiving both analog and digital signals have access to more OTA channels today than ever before and probably ever again.

To most people, this doesn't mean much since many of the channels are exact duplicates of each other.  However, this is an opportunity for people to perform direct comparisons between the analog and digital technologies.  By flipping back and forth between channels, it's easy to observe the differences in picture quality, sound quality, and signal behavior.  After the analog shutdown is complete, all broadcasters will revert back to just a single transmitter and this opportunity will go away.

This abundance of channels also means that our current TV spectrum is very crowded.  This has forced some digital channels to reduce their broadcast power, move to different transmitting facilities, or otherwise alter their digital signal to something less optimal than their normal full-power configuration.  The overall interference levels caused by same-channel and adjacent-channel signals is also higher than usual.  There is a strong demand for channels right now and the transmitters have to be packed pretty close to each other in order to accomodate everyone's needs.  Despite the spectrum planning difficulties, we are essentially running two parallel broadcast networks today. 

We would also like to point out that switching to digital does not mean abandoning analog reception altogether.  In most cases, adding digital reception hardware does not mean losing analog tuning capability.  Analog TV receivers have been around for so long and have become so cheap that the majority of equipment that includes a digital receiver will still include an analog receiver for convenience and compatibility.  Note that even after February 2009, there will still be a few analog transmitters in operation, so we should not completely rule-out analog reception after the transition.  In our analysis results, we will consider three situations: 1) analog-only reception, 2) digital-only reception, and 3) a hybrid case where both analog and digital reception is allowed.

Graph of Channel Availability Now

When we look at present-day channel availability, one of the first things that jumps out at us is the sheer number of channels that are available to most people.  It's quite common to receive at least one channel from each of the major affiliate broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS), but we are also starting to see other groups filling the airwaves (CW, MyNetwork, ION, independents, foreign language stations, etc.).  Anyone that's been away from OTA television for a while might be pleasantly surprised to find that their channel selection has grown somewhat over the decades.  You still won't find OTA editions of ESPN, HBO, and other subscription-only programming feeds, but it's not bad considering that there is some good content available and that it's free.

The people who get the greatest number of channels are typically situated between major markets and get their choice of channels from two or sometimes three neighboring cities.  There is some duplication of programming here, especially among affiliate broadcasters, but there's probably still enough news, sports, and other localized programming to make it worth checking out each of the channels from time-to-time.

It is also interesting to see the combined analog+digital channel counts.  Most people don't really care about having so many duplicate channels, but it is amazing to see how fully packed our television spectrum has become.  In the past, any given city would only use a small fraction of the available channels.  The limited number of channels (2-69) had to be re-used over-and-over again throughout the country, so the FCC made sure each city only sparsely filled the available channels.  This provided enough vacant slots so that neighboring cities would have their share of channels without broadcasting on top of each other.  The same channels would not be reused again until there was enough distance between transmitters to avoid interference (usually 2 or 3 metros away).  With our current dual-network configuration, a lot of people are covered by almost double the normal number of channels.  In the most extreme cases, some people might find a usable analog or digital signal on over 70% of the channels, which is an unprecedented level of spectrum utilization.

Another point that everyone is sure to notice is that digital channels reach fewer people than analog channels.  However, before we jump to any hasty conclusions, let's keep in mind that there are a few explanations for this, and, in some areas, this channel shortage is expected.  Some of the main reasons for this discrepancy are

  • There are thousands of analog Class A, low-power, translator, and booster stations throughout the country that are not required to convert to digital by next year.  In fact, the FCC temporarily put all changes to these transmitters on hold while they were working out the final DTV plans for the major broadcasters.  It is still not clear if or when these smaller transmitters will finalize their transition to digital.  These transmitters do not have a matching digital counterpart.
  • Many digital transmitters are operating at reduced power or at temporary facilities because the current spectrum is over-crowded.  The digital broadcast network is being "held back" to a certain degree to avoid interfering with the incumbent analog network.  This will change after the analog shutdown.
  • Some broadcasters are only operating an analog transmitter right now.  Their digital transmitter will no go live until they "flash cut" to their new transmitter on February 17, 2009.

We will hold off making any conclusions until we take a closer look at how things look after the analog shutdown.  In the meantime, we came up with some interesting stats about the OTA landscape we have right now.

 Today's OTA Landscape   Analog   Digital  
 Total market penetration   99.0%   98.0%
 Average number of channels
 available per household
   15.1    12.6 
 Average number of analog+digital
 channels available per household  
 Highest channel count seen at most
 favorable locations
     31       29 
 Highest analog+digital channel count
 seen at most favorable locations
 Approximate number of people
 unable to receive any channels
  2.7 mil   5.6 mil
 Approximate number of people unable
 to receive channels of either type 
          1.9 mil       

Graph of Channel Gain/Loss Now

It would be simple to look at these numbers and say that there is an average loss of about 2.5 channels going from analog-only to digital-only, but the details are far more interesting if you look at the next graph.  It's true that the average household will lose channels, but that's an generalization that does not apply to everyone.  The truth is that about 14% of the population will see exactly the same number of digital channels as analog.  About 16% of the population will actually see an increase in the number of channels today, with the most extreme cases seeing 11 more digital channels than analog.  And this is happening even with some of the digital transmitters either offline or operating at reduced power.

That still leaves about 70% of the population seeing a decrease in the number of channels.  The bulk of the population will lose a handful of channels, and in some extreme cases will lose more than a dozen channels.  A closer look at some of those extreme cases reveal that they are at locations in-between markets that are within range of 20 to 30 analog channels.  It would seem that they are at the fringe of reception for many analog signals, but are slightly out of reach of the equivalent digital channels.  One partial explanation for this is that current DTV broadcasts are more heavily biased toward high UHF channels whereas analog channels have a more balanced distribution on VHF and UHF channels.  Users in the fringe reception areas behind 1 and 2 edge obstructions will usually get less signal from UHF channels because of the differences in the way VHF and UHF radio waves bend over objects.  We'll see if this gets any better with the post-transition analysis where many of the DTV transmitters will relocate to lower channel numbers.

Losing a few channels is probably not a big deal right now because all the analog broadcasts are still there as a backup.  However, it looks like if you limit yourself to only digital channels in today's OTA environment, the average household will see a slight decrease in the number of available channels.  A few people will see a dramatic increase or decrease in the number of available channels, but for most of us, there will only be a decline of about 2-3 channels and the average household will end up with about 12-13 digital channels.  If you live in a city's television sweet spot, chances are that you'll see very little loss of channels.  If you live in a fringe reception area, you're more likely to see a significant decline in channels.  We expect things to get a little better after the analog shutdown, but it's hard to say if those improvements will be enough to get us back to a break-even point.  We'll examine that more closely later in the analysis.


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